Earlier this year, the world's attention turned to Charlottenburg Palace – the home of the Danish monarchy – as then-Queen Margrethe stepped down and handed the royal reins to her son, Crown Prince Frederik, after precisely 52 years on the throne. 

King Frederik is now a monarch whose origins, according to legend, lore, and the Danish monarchy's official website, stretch back more than 1,000 years to the era of Vikings. 

This claim to fame – having a monarchy that is Europe's oldest – harks back to the early medieval period when Gorm the Old was said to have unified the several petty kingdoms and polities in Denmark under his rule by the mid-10th century. 

Whilst Gorm is the first acknowledged historical ruler of Denmark, if we scour the sagas, we have a plethora of semi-legendary and semi-historical figures who were said to have ruled Denmark (either all or a substantial part of the nascent kingdom). 

None were more impressive than a son of the scourge of the Carolingian Empire, one who was said to have a snake in his eye. 

A popular figure in eras present and gone 

Thanks in part to a recent show where he was the central character, the wider world is coming to appreciate the legendary story of the Viking warrior and ruler Ragnar Lothbrok

What academics can agree on is that a man with that name very likely led a devastating Viking raid against Paris in 845

The sagas paint a more vivid picture of his career, with Ragnar fighting his way all over the Viking world until he was captured by Anglo-Saxon King Aella of Northumbria and held prisoner of war. 

His bloody demise occurred when Aella threw him into a pit of snakes, after which Lothbrok vowed his sons would avenge their father. 

Ragnar was said to have a brood of sons, his "piglets," as he called them in the sagas, who would follow their father's footsteps into being Vikings. 

As important leaders of the so-called Great Heathen Army, they would raid, ravage, and battle across the British Isles, aiming to bring much of the region under Viking control. 

Throughout the sagas, one of his sons is mentioned frequently for his bravery, dubbed Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. 

Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye boasts famous lineage; his parents are the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok and Aslaug, whose lineage traces back to the renowned shieldmaiden Brynhildr. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Scion of a famous Viking family 

Using the sagas as a starting point, tradition holds that Sigurd was born sometime in the mid-9th century. 

Young Sigurd received his epithet when he was said to have been born with a mark in his eye, which has been described in the sagas as either resembling a snake or an ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. 

However, it wasn't just Sigurd's father that got a mention in the sagas. 

His mother, Aslaug, was said to be famous as she not only "tamed" the wild Ragnar but was the daughter of the shieldmaiden, Brynhildr.

His mother, Aslaug, was said to be famous in her own right as she not only "tamed" the wild Ragnar but was the daughter of the shieldmaiden, Brynhildr. Yes, that Brynhildr, made famous centuries later by Richard Wagner's epic operas

Writing in the later medieval period, Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus spent much of his career trying to compile a historical narrative for the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. 

He relates how Sigurd joined his father on campaigns throughout the British Isles, Kievan Rus, and even as far south as the Mediterranean Sea

Contrary to the myth of a single massive invasion, historical records indicate that Viking raids on the British Isles were a prolonged series of incursions over more than a decade. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Adventures in Anglo-Saxon England and beyond 

Most of the rich tapestry of Norse sagas should be taken as little more than gripping yarns with a sprinkling of historical truth littered throughout. 

However, the archeological record seems to back up a "Great Heathen Army" invading the British Isles from 865. 

Reality differs from the sagas in that there probably wasn't just one "invasion" but rather a series of raids over more than a decade. 

These incursions brought much of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England under Viking control and domination

Though Vikings did come across the North Sea to raid and settle in the British Isles, it is doubtful that the reason behind this was to avenge a fallen Viking warrior. 

More earthly motives, such as land, riches, and power, were the predominant reasons for undertaking these maritime expeditions. 

By the mid-9th century, the northern Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria was ripe for the taking and would eventually fall to Vikings whether their king did indeed throw a Viking warrior into a snake pit or not. 

Whilst much of the traditional credit in the sagas goes to Sigurd and his retinue for devastating much of the northern realms of Anglo-Saxon England, Vikings had been raiding and causing havoc in this area for almost a century since at least 793

This half-century of stress and constant harrying by Vikings led to the collapse of the Anglo-Saxon defiance and defense. 

By the time that Northumbria fell into Viking hands – it would remain for almost a century (c. 867 – 954) – Sigurd was said to have been the ruler of much of his father's former kingdom throughout Frisia, Denmark, and Norway from its newly renamed capital, Jorvik

The sagas relate how Northumbria was brought under the Viking heel and would become an important economic, political, and cultural entrepôt for the remainder of the early medieval period. 

Despite attempts by later medieval historians to establish connections between figures such as Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and historical kings, Gorm the Old stands as Denmark's earliest confirmed monarch. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Death and a possible historical counterpart 

Later medieval historians and chroniclers, like Saxo Grammaticus, have tried to link semi-legendary rulers, like Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, to the historical House of Knytlinga, whose ancestors, now including the current King Frederik, have ruled in Denmark for more than a millennium. 

However, while contemporary historians can agree that Viking warriors and strongmen were responsible for the foundation of a unified Danish state and monarchy, linking Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye to anything other than tall tales and gripping stories is a step too far. 

Perhaps there was a Viking warrior given this moniker, but it's unlikely that he was once the ruler of Denmark in any way, shape, or form. 

The sagas relate how Sigurd died, like all good descendants of Odin should, on the battlefield – somewhere in Frisia, probably fighting the Franks. 

His death is traditionally dated as 883, but since historians can barely confirm his existence as a historical person, the specifics of when and where he died remain uncertain and are again subject to the fictional accounts of the sagas. 

Some modern historians, inspired by Grammaticus, have attempted to connect the Sigurd mentioned in the sagas to a historical figure, King Sigrid, who, as per Frankish chronicles, governed regions of Denmark alongside his brother, Halfdan, in the mid-870s. 

These were the last two Danish rulers to enter contemporary accounts until Gorm the Old over half a century later. However, as is often the case with sagas, not everything that shines is necessarily (historical) gold. 

For more information on other epic Viking nicknames, visit The Conversation here

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